Even without discriminatory understandings of gender—of the kind, for instance, advocated in the controversial memo on diversity at Google—it’s pretty commonplace to associate a traditional view of masculinity with aggressive traits such as competitiveness, assertiveness, and sexual appetite.
Too often, boys are raised with expectation that these qualities—and only these—will be the attributes they should express in order to show their masculinity. Traits considered “feminine,” such as gentleness, kindness, sensitivity, have no place in what is allowed of a man in much of the world.
Robert Webb, a British comedian who stars in Peep Show, the UK’s longest-running sitcom, shares a powerful anecdote from his memoir, How Not to be a Boy, to show how growing up by the rules of “don’t cry, play rough, don’t talk about feelings” left him unprepared to process his mother’s death. Recounting the loss, he remembers going to a school admission interview as 17-year-old on the afternoon of her funeral, claiming—then, and for years to follow—that “nothing” was wrong, and talking about it wouldn’t change anything.
The clip is part of an interview aired Wednesday on Channel 4. Webb talks about how “emotional repression” and “all that stuff about ‘be a man, man up, act like a man,’ all that stuff about ‘stop crying'” caused problems for him, and his loved ones, later. “You’re training boys to ignore their feelings,” he says, “and if you do that then you’re not able to take responsibility for them. And you end up causing more harm than you might otherwise, to yourself and the people in your life.”
Webb, who said he eventually sought counseling to deal with his grief, says that too often the only way in which men’s repressed feelings are expressed through anger: “I, sometimes, get angry when I am frightened, I get angry when I’m embarrassed, I get angry…it goes just straight into anger because you haven’t learnt…to work out why you’re feeling what you’re feeling.”
Women, too, may do that. But unlike men, Webb said, “they haven’t been taught to wear a complete lack of self-awareness as a badge of pride.”
The idea that there is a direct link between not being allowed to embrace emotions and tenderness as a boy and becoming an angry, perhaps even violent, man also emerged in a very perceptive Twitter thread shared a couple of weeks ago, in the aftermath of Charlottesville’s white-male-led violence.
A woman who works as a clown at children’s party shared a quietly heartbreaking anecdote perfectly highlighting the gender conditioning that boys have to face—arguably even more strongly than girls, since it’s somehow more acceptable for a girl to be “a tomboy” than for a boy to show supposedly feminine characteristics. Please click on the tweet to unfurl the thread: